COVID forcing hotels to adapt to cancelled plans


When the coronavirus pandemic first took hold of the world last year, major hotel chains, airlines and travel providers responded with widespread changes to cancellation policies. For starters, most allowed individuals to cancel reservations even in instances of restrictive or non-refundable bookings. Many also implemented generous policies for cancelations with regards to future bookings.

Now, as the travel industry continues to experience disruption from the pandemic, and hamstrung vaccine rollouts threaten to further extend border closures, several airlines, booking platforms and hotels are either extending or updating these cancellation polices. Despite this though, and as situations in various locations continue to shift, it’s wise not to assume that the generous cancellation policies offered in the past months are still in place.

As many of us have experienced, the best advice is probably not to rely on hotels or airlines to inform you when they roll back any of the positive moves they made earlier in 2020 – instead make sure you read all the current terms and conditions carefully to make sure you are fully appraised!

As a case in point, last year, Marriott, the world’s largest hotel company, rapidly shifted from a case-specific refund policy with regards to COVID-19 to a standardised practice worldwide. The group stated that for reservations made before 6 July, 2020, for any future arrival date, the policies that were in place at the time of reservation (or as previously communicated) would continue to be honored. For guests with reservations made on or after 6 July, 2020, for arrival dates through 31 March, 2021, the reservation to be changed or cancelled at no charge up to 24 hours before the scheduled arrival date. Now, for guests making new reservations for arrival dates on or after 1 April, 2021, individual Marriott hotel cancellation policies in place at the time of reservation will apply.

Similarly, Radisson states on its website that for individual reservations made on or after 1 January, 2021 – until 31 December, 2021 in any RHG hotel in Europe, Middle East, Africa, India and Asia Pacific, individual hotel cancellation policies in place at the time of booking will also apply. They advise that hotels should be contacted directly in this regard and it seems that cancellation restrictions appear to range from around eight days to 24 hours prior to arrival time and depend on the specific destination. Also for Leisure Groups, Business Groups and Meeting & Events new reservations made on or after 1 January, 2021, the individual hotel cancellation policies in place at the time of booking will apply.

In the case of Hyatt hotels (with some very limited exceptions) reservations booked on 1 July, 2020 or beyond – for arrival dates through 31 July, 2021 – can be cancelled at no charge up to 24 hours (with some very limited exceptions) before your scheduled arrival. Any reservations booked on 1 July, 2020 or beyond that disclose a different cancellation or refund policy at the time of booking are excluded from this policy and subject to the cancellation or refund policy disclosed at the time of booking. Hotels may adjust this cancellation policy during some high-demand periods (e.g. holidays or special events).

Most Hilton hotels currently also provide flexibility to change or cancel up to 24 hours before arrival although some exclusions to the 24-hour window may apply – and its best to refer to the property’s Rate Details for applicable terms or exceptions, if any, when booking or changing reservations.

Refund processes may be even more complicated if you booked a vacation rental or homestay accommodations through a private owner instead of a traditional hotel. An attorney can help you understand your rights and the terms of your contract.

Short term rental site, indicates you might be able to cancel your booking due to the circumstances related to the coronavirus, however, this depends on several factors, including destination, date of booking, country of origin, arrival date, and reason for traveling. If your cancellation falls under their coronavirus cancellation category, the property has to provide a refund, offer a free date change, or credit you for a future stay.

According to Airbnb (who have come under fire from the media and the public during this pandemic) the majority of its listings have “flexible or moderate cancellation policies, both of which allow for full refunds of the nightly rate for cancellations made at least 5 days prior to check-in, regardless of the circumstances” but if that doesn’t apply to your case, the Airbnb spokesperson said the company encourages guests to contact the host.

Although Airbnb did distribute $17 million in grants to accommodate hosts, many hosts who are obviously struggling financially and are less inclined to agree to a full refund. I’d suggest trying to negotiate a partial refund, or ask for a booking credit instead of a cancellation and reschedule your family visit for another time. Bear in mind that you are dealing with a human and not a robot and that ultimately impacts how, when and if you will be refunded.

Ultimately, I believe it is important for both travellers and hotels to be reasonable, particularly as the pandemic has posed a real threat to the livelihood of individuals and the future of so many hotel and tourism operators. While consumers are entitled to refunds where cancellations are warranted, this is unchartered territory for all parties.

Towards the start of the global outbreak, South African Ombud Magauta Mphahlele stated that suppliers should always ensure that their cancellation policies are in line with the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), saying suppliers cannot impose a postponement on a consumer without the option of a refund.

She explained that there are scenarios where postponements do not work, adding that a consumer is also under no obligation to accept a postponement where it is not possible. In addition, she stated that cancellation penalties should only apply when suppliers can prove costs have already been incurred.

I believe that the decision to resume travel remain deeply personal, but now might be the best time to make plans, regardless of your current comfort level. Many hotels are now offering unprecedented deals for both business and leisure travel so if you want to get the best deals – make them. Just be ready to change or cancel them if you have to.

Once a critical mass of people is vaccinated, there is going to be a tsunami of travelers looking to get out there again. If you are smart, you might make bookings now to get ahead of the wave!

My tips relating to changing hotel bookings affected by coronavirus are fairly simple:

  • Try online first. With so many people trying to change or cancel their reservations, hotel phone lines are often incredibly busy. Most hotels direct people to their websites, where new policies should automatically be applied to changes and cancellations if your reservation is eligible.
  • Also make your cancellation request as early as possible. Most hotels are saying that guests must make their change or cancellation at least 24 hours before their scheduled date of arrival. Some are asking for a longer notice period, so make sure you change or cancel your booking in time.
  • Thirdly, do keep an eye out for policy extensions or changes. Some hotels have been faster than others to offer broad cancellation policy changes. Others might only cover stays in countries with government-imposed restrictions on movement.

The hotel industry is taking the virus and the threat it may pose to guests and staff seriously. But depending on where you’ve booked, the hotel cancellation policy may not always be as flexible, since cancellation coverage often depends on whether you booked directly with the hotel or through a third-party agency and on rules pertaining to the destination. It is important to note that this situation is fluid and shifting circumstances continue to affect the policies in place.